Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Benjamin DeCasseres, Spinoza Liberator of God and Man (1932)

There has been a flurry of biographies in recent years about Baruch Spinoza. Among them: Spinoza, A Life by Steven Nadler ; Spinoza's Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind by Steven Nadler ; A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza's Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age by Steven Nadler ; Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity by Rebecca Goldstein; Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity: 1650-1750 by Jonathan Israel; The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World by Matthew Stewart; Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain by Antonio Damasio

Each of these volumes is commendable to the reader interested in the man whom Albert Einstein called "The greatest of modern philosophers." And to read the written word of Baruch Spinoza himself, there is the relatively recent edition of Spinoza's Complete Works translated by Samuel Shirley.

When Benjamin DeCasseres wrote Spinoza: Liberator of God and Man, he cites only John Colerus' The Life of Benedict Spinoza (1705) and a unnamed volume authored by John Maximilian Lucas published in 1719 as his sources on the life of Baruch Spinoza. As the list of books above demonstrates, the late 20th and now the 21st centuries are increasing their attention to Spinoza.

DeCasseres' small book is not a biography, but it is what The Washington Post obituary writers would call "an appreciation." It is an appreciation of the philosophical foundations of the thinking of Baruch Spinoza: mystical pantheism born of the mind of Plotinus; Epicurus' pursuit of happiness and avoidance of anxiety; and Giordanno Bruno's pantheism. It is also an appreciation of how Spinoza's writings have influenced modern thinking.

An important aspect of Spinoza's thinking is his rejection of anthropotheism. DeCasseres, however, has a very different take on anthropomorphism or anthropotheism than Spinoza's works describe. "The evolution of the idea of God is an anthropomorphic evolution," DeCasseres writes. "It has grown and expanded with the growth and expansion of the consciousness of certain individual men. God is always, and will always be, a 'personal' God, for he is always generated in a unique and individual sensibility. He is the reflection of a man's consciousness. But God's liberation proceeds just in the minds of thinkers. When the greatest degree of universalization of the idea of God is reached, as it was in the brain of Spinoza, the personality of the universalizer becomes one with the universal generalization of all the shackles of relation melt in the Absolute, and the All and any one of its infinitesimally small modes of relative and fugacious existences become one, as in the case of Spinoza. Hence the consciousness of Spinoza and God become interchangeable."

"God in Spinoza is still anthropomorphic and Panmorphic because the mathematical reasoning which Spinoza used to reach him is man-form and has no reality that we know of outside of man's brain; because the peculiar mystical intuitions of Spinoza which urged him to use this process are man-form, and because the internal and external universes with which he identified God are man-form.

"God is, then, still a prisoner, even in Spinoza, of the human reason, of mystical intuition and of the phenomenal universe. And his liberation by Spinoza consists in this: that within the limits of the imaginative Absolute, the imaginative Eternity and Infinity and the imaginative intuitions of Spinoza's consciousness God ceases to be bound by any relation, special attribute, special law or special incarnation. What was Spirit became flesh, say the incarnationists. But Spinoza says, What was flesh now becomes Spirit, and other than Spirit nothing is or can be. Therefore I am --- and you are --- God."

This is poetic hogwash. [God] cannot be a prisoner and at the same time be liberated, and it was not so "even in Spinoza." DeCasseres treats every creation of human imagination as "anthropomorphic." For Spinoza, god was not the creation of human imagination; it was something (all of Nature) the human mind came to understand through reason. By DeCasseres' definition, the Big Bang is anthropomorphic as is quantum mechanics simply because it is the creation of the human imagination. DeCasseres is wrong about god as "prisoner"; DeCasseres is correct that Spinoza did liberate "god" from its anthropomorphic tether. Spinoza did imagine Eternity and Infinity, without special attribute or special incarnation, and he imagined the entire physical universe and everything within that universe, and he imagined it without limit in time and without limit in space, and he called it god. What is anthropomorphic is something with special attributes (mode and extension in Spinoza's parlance), and by acknowledging this much, DeCasseres is inconsistent in saying Spinoza's god "without special attribute or special incarnation" was anthropomorphic.

Spinoza's god does not choose between good and evil; Spinoza's god does not love or hate; Spinoza's god does not cause miracles to happen; Spinoza's god does not hear prayers or respond to them; Spinoza's god does not bring things into being because something that is "absolute" and infinite [meaning that it represents everything] does not create itself. On this last point, it is logical to be sure, but I have to part company with Spinoza, not because of his pantheism or because of his objection to anthropotheism, or because of his objection to a Creator, but because nature is constantly creating and bringing things into being. At some point, a physical system (even a system of nature called "god") --- such as Spinoza's system (see March 6, 2012 post) --- has to address the fact that "things" in that system are brought into being that did not previously exist, at least in the same form they previously did. While I can agree with Spinoza that an anthropomorphic god did not "create" man, evolution as we know it is a fact of nature and the human species certainly was created by evolutionary forces. If "god" represents everything in nature, than god certainly represents evolutionary creation and bringing things into being. That is the "logic" of Spinoza's system, in my view.

Spinoza had enormous influence on Enlightenment discussion of a deity. His was not the only view that varied from anthropocentric Christian, Jewish, and Muslim visions of god. (See May 24, 2010 post). But however we may agree that, in Spinoza's system, god is untethered from its anthropcentric chains, most humans today still believe in an anthropocentric deity who hates, kills, loves, creates, discriminates, is petty, responds to human pleas, and has a wide variety of other human features. (See December 20, 2011 post and May 12, 2010 post and June 12, 2011 post).

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